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AJS Review 32:1 (2008), 169–219
Jonathan Klawans. Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press,
2006. x, 372 pp.
doi: 10.1017/S0364009408001013
In this forcefully written book, Jonathan Klawans offers a compelling case for
pursuing a sympathetic symbolic approach to the sacrificial cult that was at the heart
of ancient Israelite and early Jewish religion. The book revolves around two main
axes, one critical and the other constructive. First, Klawans seeks to expose the foundational—and deeply problematic—assumptions underlying most modern scholarly
interpretations of this elaborate system of vegetable and especially animal offerings.
Second, he presents a novel interpretation of the primary organizing principles that
made the sacrificial process socially and symbolically meaningful for those who
engaged in it.
Klawans makes clear at the outset just how much is at stake in his efforts to clear
this field of inquiry of analytical inconsistency and theological prejudice. Interpretations of the sacrificial cult of the Jerusalem Temple are too often predicated on the twin
axioms of teleological “evolutionism” and theological “supersessionism.” Sacrifice
is thus consistently cast as, at best, a rudimentary stage in the inexorable progress
of human religious life or, at worst, a strange, barbaric, and even immoral
vestige of the essentially violent nature of humanity. In either case, the cult is
imagined to have been transmuted, more or less successfully, into increasingly
expressive and genuine forms of religious piety, such as prayer, Torah study, or the
liturgical commemoration of Jesus’ atoning death. These presuppositions have
informed—and, in turn, been reinforced by—the great modern theories of
religion: From Durkheim and Freud to Girard and Burkert, modern thinkers have
been fascinated by (their fantasies of) the “primitive” sacrificial act, which they see
as a window into the very origins, and thus the essential nature, of human society
and culture.
Although this critique of the “search for origins” in the study of sacrifice
covers ground well trod by Jonathan Z. Smith and others, Klawans’s trenchant
assessment of previous theories of ancient Israelite sacrifice should serve as a
model for judicious engagement with methods and tools pioneered in the social
sciences. Particularly significant is his astute account of the diametrically
opposed treatments that the systems of ritual sacrifice and ritual purity have
received in recent scholarship. Largely under the salutary influence of Mary
Douglas, biblical and Jewish purity regulations are now generally studied in synchronic terms as coherent systems of symbolic action. By contrast, studies of the
sacrificial cult continue to be encumbered by a powerful anti-ritual bias that tends
to focus attention on the progressive development and eventual eclipse of this
awkward institution.
Book Reviews
In my view, Klawans’s most significant methodological contribution to the
study of sacrifice is his rehabilitation of the role played by metaphor in this ritual
system. Klawans follows the cognitive-linguistic approach of George Lakoff,
which stresses that metaphors are not temporally or developmentally secondary
to embodied practices but are coeval with and essential to the logic of all
human action—cultic or otherwise. Symbolically meaningful religious forms
are not the sole province of a world that has outgrown sacrifice. Rather, purity
and sacrifice belonged to a unified but multivalent ritual process that had
always already been simultaneously concrete and symbolic.
In Chapter 2, Klawans applies this central methodological insight to the task
of discerning the organizing principles that gave the “sacrificial process,” as
described in the Hebrew Bible, its motivation and meaning. Encompassing both
preparatory purifications and a regular sequence of sacrificial actions, this ritual
system engendered, enacted, and fulfilled (1) the desire to imitate god (imitatio
dei) and (2) the equally potent drive to maintain the presence of God within the
Temple and its community. Klawans defends his application of ritual theory to
the gap-ridden biblical text; after all, even descriptions of “living” rituals are
always inherently mediated and thus partial. More controversial—and, to my
mind, less convincing—is Klawans’s contention that the priestly and holiness
sources reflect a single vision of the Temple cult and can thus be studied synchronically as a unified whole. This move aims to counteract the evolutionist impulses
that characterize much source-critical scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. But the
specter of teleology cannot, I think, serve as a priori grounds for minimizing
the ideological heterogeneity of the biblical text and disregarding its potential
value for reconstructing processes of historical change and social conflict. Appealing to a hermeneutic of sympathy—but without providing sufficiently thorough
textual reasoning—Klawans has, in effect, reinscribed in his interpretation of
Israelite sacrifice the highly particular but authoritative perspective articulated
in the canonized end product of what were, in fact, messy compositional and historical processes.
In Chapter 3, however, the dynamism and heterogeneity that are generated
by innovation and contestation reenter the picture. The sacrificial system of
ancient Israel, as it turns out, was a highly contested affair. In a highly original
analysis, Klawans argues that, although both priests and prophets would have
agreed that sacrificial gifts must be the rightful property of those who offer
them, some prophetic writings present a maximalist interpretation of this principle.
For these prophets, many of whom were themselves drawn from the priestly caste,
the fundamental economic inequalities that they viewed as endemic to ancient
Israelite society rendered the offerings of the rich both morally and ritually unacceptable. Thus, the prophetic critique did not pit “genuine ethics” against “mere
ritual,” as many would have it, but rather understood social justice and sacrificial
worship to be wholly interdependent domains.
In Part II of the book, Klawans turns his attention to the attitudes toward
temple and cult found in the literature of early Judaism as well as in the New Testament texts of nascent Christianity. Chapter 4 traces the two dominant conceptualizations of the Temple that wended their way through a millennium and a half of
Book Reviews
Jewish writings, from the Hellenistic period until the European Middle Ages.
Klawans shows that the Jerusalem Temple could be imagined either (1) as a representation of the cosmos or (2) as the earthly counterpart of a heavenly sanctuary.
Each of these images is governed by its own independent logic, and the two should
not be conflated. More importantly, far from reflecting a “spiritualization” of the
physical cult, these images attest to the pervasive influence of cultic idioms on—
the “templization” of—all aspects of Jewish cultural and religious life.
Unfortunately, Klawans surveys the literary history of this imagery only
rather schematically. His discussion of Midrash Tadshe, for example, lacks
textual specificity (and fails to consider the findings of Martha Himmelfarb,
which demonstrate the concrete literary influence of certain Second Temple
sources on the midrashic writings associated with Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan and
his circle1). More problematic still is Klawans’s out-of-hand rejection of the possibility that the image of a heavenly temple might, in some cases, be linked to criticisms of the cult. It is, of course, true that the notion of a temple in heaven cannot
be presumed, in and of itself, to constitute a critique of earthly realities. Still, many
of the texts surveyed here do, I think, articulate specific concerns with the functioning of the Jerusalem Temple or the behaviors of its personnel. Any reconsideration of these questions must build from sustained textual analysis—and
cannot merely proceed from a principled suspicion, however reasonable in
many cases, of “spiritualizing” interpretations.
Indeed, a number of the texts discussed in Chapter 4, such as the Book of the
Watchers, would have been equally at home in Chapter 5, which surveys the critical stance taken toward the cult in some Second Temple writings, especially in the
Qumran documents. A number of texts explicitly identify moral, ritual, and even
structural deficiencies in the cult, although Klawans rightly stresses that these
sources neither reject cultic ritual as such nor seek to replace the cult permanently
with a novel set of religious practices. One might question, however, Klawans’s
rationale for his division of the sources between these two chapters. Had
Chapter 5 been restricted to the sectarian writings from Qumran, this division
might have been understandable. But, as it is, I was not persuaded that Jubilees
and the Temple Scroll, neither of which can be considered sectarian strictly speaking, would be more (or less) likely to express criticism of the cult than, say, the
Testament of Levi or certain Enochic documents. This division seems to
suggest, in effect, that substantive critique of the cult during the Second Temple
period was largely, if not exclusively, a sectarian phenomenon. This conclusion
is not borne out by the textual evidence.
Chapters 6 and 7 offer revisionist interpretations of a number of classic rabbinic and New Testament texts relating to the Jerusalem Temple and its ritual
system. Klawans finds that rabbinic sources do not attribute the destruction
1. “Some Echoes of Jubilees in Medieval Hebrew Literature,” in Tracing the Threads: Studies in
the Vitality of Jewish Pseudepigrapha, ed. J. C. Reeves (Atlanta, GA: Scholars’ Press, 1994), 115–41; and
idem, “R. Moses the Preacher and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” AJS Review 9, no. 1 (1984):
Book Reviews
of the Temple in 70 CE to the moral or ritual shortcomings of its priesthood. The
rabbis were not radical innovators formulating a perfected form of Judaism to
replace this now outmoded form of worship. Instead, the rabbinic attitude
toward the Temple builds squarely on the widespread desire among Jews,
which had begun to develop long before the destruction, to “emulate the temple
beyond its bounds” (253). Similarly, although a number of influential New Testament texts, such as Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 and the pseudo-Pauline letter to the
Hebrews, do articulate powerful anti-Temple messages, the well-known passages
from the synoptic gospels that recount the events of the Last Supper and Jesus’ socalled cleansing of the Temple can best be read as confirmation of the vital role
that the sacrificial cult continued to play in the formation of religious practice
among ancient Jews, including the followers of Jesus. In Klawans’s reading,
Jesus’ Eucharistic statements at the Last Supper are not meant to discredit the
cult but to draw its symbolic resonances and ritual authority from it. And, in disrupting the normal functioning of the Temple, Jesus (or the gospel writers) did not wish
to signal the coming end of animal sacrifice but to build on the tradition of prophetic
critique, with its dual commitment to moral scrupulousness and ritual rigor.
Klawans is at his best when dissecting the faulty textual reasoning of
received scholarly opinion and the problematic analytical presuppositions on
which they are based. The book does not, however, always linger over matters
of textual interpretation in sufficient detail, often privileging general historiographic preferences over the specifics of literary history. Still, it is my sincere
hope that scholars of ancient Judaism will read—and internalize—Klawans’s
sophisticated account of the vital role that metaphorical thinking plays in constituting cultural practices such as sacrifice as symbolically meaningful actions.
Ra‘anan S. Boustan
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California
• • •
Howard Apothaker. Sifra, Dibbura DeSinai: Rhetorical Formulae, Literary
Structures, and Legal Traditions. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College Press,
2003. 464 pp.
doi: 10.1017/S0364009408001025
Relatively little research is being done in the area of midrash halakhah. Of
the work being done, most of it—for example, the prodigious labors of Menahem
Kahana—falls under the rubric of philology. Only a few scholars—most notably
Jacob Neusner, Steven Fraade, Daniel Boyarin, and Moshe Halbertal—have
addressed the question of how to understand the project of midrash halakhah.
(Jay Harris has helped us understand how the endeavor was viewed by Jews
from the medieval period and onward, but this is a separate issue.) Therefore,
any attempt to explicate the program of a work of midrash halakhah, such as